Friday, September 20, 2013

Panera Bread CEO Eats On $4.50 Per Day: Good for Public Health or Just Good for PR?

The issues of food insecurity and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP- formerly known as Food Stamps) are quite timely.  September is Hunger Action Month and the House has just passed a bill that will cut $39 Billion from SNAP.  Acknowledging this, I wanted to talk about the CEO of Panera Bread.  Over the past week, Ron Shaich has undertaken a well-publicized Feeding America SNAP Challenge.  His goal was to shop for meals with the daily average per person ($4.50) benefit provided by SNAP in order to get a sense of the challenges faced by those struggling to put food on the table.  Feeding America encourages those participating in the challenge to share their experiences in order to raise awareness of “this critical nutrition program”.  Ron wrote about his experience on his LinkedIn Blog from September 9-20, 2013.

I thought his initial posts did a good job of outlining realistic goals:

  • (1) To help bring awareness to the issue [I’ll take it- even though all Pop Health readers know I hate the term “awareness”] and 
  • (2) Spark deeper conversations about food insecurity and possible solutions.  

Ron also highlighted an important caveat: His experiences from the challenge week are not meant to provide an authentic representation of food insecurity in America.  He understands that the issue is much more complex.  Over the course of the week, he discussed how his shopping and eating habits changed during the challenge.  For example, he visited a supermarket known for their low prices.  He also swapped out typical fresh goods like yogurt for “filling” foods like grains.  He documented the mental and physical side effects of his altered diet such as fatigue, irritability and resentment.  Some of his major take-aways from the challenge were:

  • (1) One week is not sufficient to truly understand food insecurity, 
  • (2) Food dominates your thoughts when it is not readily available, 
  • (3) Increased empathy for those who struggle, and 
  • (4) The importance of eliminating judgment and preconceived notions about those who are food insecure and/or require assistance from the SNAP program.

My thoughts:

  • The Challenge and blog posts did not reveal anything unexpected; however it is worth it to read his posts just for the reader comments.  I am always impressed with how social media can solicit engagement and dialogue about public health topics.  While some readers were very supportive and applauded Ron for his efforts, others were quite critical- highlighting important limitations of his undertaking.  For example, its simplicity.  Readers pointed out that it is not just about food insecurity.  It is the stress of having your home, food, job, and transportation be unstable all at once.  They also pointed out how easy it was for him to jump in his car to visit a less expensive grocery store.  Families that are limited by transportation and geography do not have that option.   
  • For me, this simplicity was highlighted in the juxtaposition of Ron’s SNAP challenge with many of the photographs that he used to accompany his blog posts.  For example, on day #4 we see Ron cooking his inexpensive dinner in a gorgeous kitchen.  On days #5,6,7 we see Ron eating in his beautifully outfitted office and building kitchen.  
  • The readers/commenters did a great job (better than Ron in my opinion) of highlighting community and society-level contributors to food insecurity.  They discussed implications of current minimum wage pay.  They discussed families stuck “in the middle”- not qualifying for SNAP but not making enough money for their families to eat.  They discussed the underemployed- those working multiple low-paying part-time jobs without benefits.  They discussed how the culture of our country has changed- citing examples from past generations when employees were highly valued.  They discussed the high cost of food- and the lack of healthy options for those living on a strict budget.  I was especially moved by the first comment on his day #5 post.  The comment comes from a former Panera worker who left after 4 years due to low wages that rendered her unable to support herself.  She writes that “many employees at the stores I worked at are food insecure, as well as myself.”  While she acknowledged Panera’s philanthropic efforts, she asked Ron “why not look in your very own kitchens for people to help as well?”   
  • I also took note of Ron’s communication channel selection.  He used his existing blog on LinkedIn.  I’m hoping to track down reliable data on the demographics of LinkedIn users (e.g., education and income levels) so that I have a better sense of his targeted audience.  According to Pew Internet research, only 20% of online adults use LinkedIn (as of August 2012).  Therefore, it just made me wonder: who might be left out of the conversation due to the blog’s location?  [*If any readers can share a reliable data source on demographics of LinkedIn users, that would be great!]
  • Since Ron’s goal is to spark deeper conversations about food insecurity and solutions, only time will tell if his company's actions will change as a result of this SNAP challenge.  Hopefully they will build upon existing efforts (like Panera Cares) to help address food insecurity at the community, society, and policy levels.

What do you think?


  1. Quantcast has quite a bit of demographic information on LinkedIn users:

    (Mostly highly educated, white or asian males that make over 100k)

  2. Thanks for this very thoughtful post, Leah.

    The concept of the "Food Stamp Challenge" is rumored to have originated at Philadelphia's Coalition Against Hunger (my former employer) in the mid-2000s to "raise awareness" about how it actually feels to be hungry and how stressful it is to eat on such a limited budget. Lots of politicians and community leaders complete the challenge every year (sometimes they don't even make it one day -- they just do the shopping to generate press coverage). I always have mixed feelings when I see celebrities (or corporate CEOs) take on the challenge, for all of the reasons you describe above (i.e. Are they doing it for there own good publicity? Or do they think they can change hearts and minds?). Whether you think the SNAP Challenge is a crummy PR gimmick or a well-meaning expression of solidarity, I think the bigger question is -- does it work?

    There is no denying it has been an effective mechanism over the years to generate compassion for program participants. I think the most successful challenges come from conservative politicians and/or public personalities who legitimately don't understand how much it sucks to be poor, until they do the whole "walk a mile in someone else's shoes" thing. Advocates who call out their elected representatives to take the challenge before voting to cut SNAP benefits are pretty hard to ignore! And I give these advocates - especially Witnesses to Hunger ( credit for 15 House Republicans along with the most of the Senate believing that the draconian cuts to SNAP that passed the House of Representatives last week are just wrong.